A creative writing instructor once explained the difference between comedy and tragedy thusly: in a comedy the protagonist experiences an epiphany in time to change the outcome of a given situation for the better whereas in a tragedy the epiphany comes too late, and the consequences are severe, cruel, and, oh yes, irreversible. Tragic. Yeah, okay, I get it. I was thinking of this old maxim about a week or two ago when I watched, repeatedly, 13 Going on 30, a movie almost Dickensian (if not Faustian) in its premise as an impatient, naive girl, circa 1987, is so desperate to be part of her middle school’s in-crowd that she’s willing to humiliate her best friend while selling-out her authentic self in the process, thereby establishing a pattern that will help her achieve all of her dreams though with enormous costs.
In this seemingly good-natured fairy tale (directed by the late Gary Winick), 13 year old Jenna Rink gets a chance to fast forward through her high school and college years, waking up, just as she had always wished, a thriving thirty year-old living in Manhattan and working at Poise, once the #1 leading fashion /lifestyle magazine (on the order of say, Glamour or even Cosmopolitan), now reduced to number 2 and fading quickly. On the outside, Jenna is very much a 30 year old with a nice apartment and a steady guy, a handsome, though goofy, hockey player; however, in this movie’s schema, Jenna is still very much a child on the inside as though she’s been dropped into the adult life she has forged for herself. Of course, there are obvious jokes here. The same kind we’ve seen time and time again in such movies as Big and Freaky Friday. You know, a child suddenly finds his/her point-of-view at odds with his/her fully developed body, along with the rest of the adult world and its responsibilities. Plus, the audience is treated to the sight of a grown actor impersonating an awkward, gangly child. Hilarity ensues, right? Especially in this case since, unlike the previous features, Jenna is not only still a child on the inside, she’s a child of the 1980s on the inside: she doesn’t understand the way the world has changed in 17 years, meaning cell phones, Eminem, and, uh, thong underwear. Plus, she dances to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and quotes Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” as if it were Shakespeare.
As Jenna acclimates to her adult lifestyle, she comes to understand that over the course of her “lost” seventeen years she has behaved quite badly, alienating her parents, for example, and bullying co-workers. She also parties hard and has been cavorting with at least one married man. When Jenna realizes just how many bad choices she’s made, and how truly disliked she is, she sets out to reinvent herself and to right as many past wrongs possible, starting with her estranged parents, but it doesn’t necessarily work out the way she plans because the damage is far greater than she can imagine. Jenna learns that it’s easier to redesign a magazine than it is to redesign a whole life. People make choices, she is told, and choices have significance, choices carry repercussions.
Okay, now what if I were to tell you that 13 Going on 30, released in 2004 and boasting a glorious, full-throttle movie star performance by Jennifer Garner (arguably the performance of her film career) is, even with its third-act sense of tragedy, essentially the lighter version of 2011’s darkly humorous Young Adult, directed by Jason Reitman, scripted by Diablo Cody, and starring the one and only Charlize Theron? Or Young Adult is the seriously twisted, less fantastic version of 13 Going on 30? Oh, and let me begin by stating that I’ve done the math. Theron’s Mavis Gary is revealed to be 37 at the beginning of Young Adult. If Mavis is 37 in 2011, that means she was 13 in 1987, which also means she was 30 in 2004, and what does that mean? It means that Jenna Rink and Mavis Gary are the same age, but while middle-schooler Jenna is definitely a child of the 80s, Mavis Gary is all about the 1990s, the early 1990s, that is, when she reigned supreme at Mercury High School in Minnesota; however, the main difference between Jenna and Mavis is that the former is willing to toss aside the best parts of her childhood in order to claim her territory as an adult while the latter clings to girlhood memories rather than face life as an adult. Even so, they both find themselves trying to undo that which cannot be undone.
Once upon a time, Mavis Gary was exactly the kind of girl Jenna Rink aspired to emulate: the queen bee with perfect blonde hair (actually voted “Best Hair” by her peers) and the class golden boy at her side, yet almost 20 years after graduation Mavis, now living in Minneapolis, is seriously on the skids. Not only has her marriage tanked (we know almost nothing about the husband), she’s about to lose her gig as a ghostwriter for a popular series of young adult novels on the order of Sweet Valley High–in this instance, Waverly Prep. Oh, and Mavis drinks a lot. A lot a lot. When Mavis opens an email with a birth announcement from back home, she fixates on returning to Mercury to reclaim her former glory–and her high school sweetie.
Like the “grown-up” Jenna Rink, Mavis Gary operates on the assumption that everyone is envious of her, envious of her striking good looks and seemingly successful career (she refers to herself as an author), but also like Jenna Rink, she’s dead-wrong. Many, if not all, of the townies consider Mavis a coarse, egomaniacal bitch with a loose screw or two. Again, just like Jenna Rink’s co-workers. Mavis is so caught up in her delusion that she doesn’t see the tragedy unfolding right before her eyes.
In both movies, the leading characters hit the proverbial wall, finding their good looks and pizzazz only get them so far. People make choices, Jenna learns, and over a lifetime those choices lead even the best of friends down different paths. When the truth hits Jenna, she tries hard to suck it up and make the best of the situation, but when the truth hits Mavis, she hits back–and hard. Not that it matters, not really.
Furthermore, both films feature third act scenes that elevate them above mere entertainment to serious meditation about the human condition. In 13 Going on 30, the emotional climax comes during a heart-to-heart between Jenna and her photographer friend and confidante Matt, ever-so-skillfully played by Mark Ruffalo. The trick here is that both characters have a lot to say, but they’re speaking in measured doses. Honest, yes, but extremely civilized. Of course, as much credit goes to the writers (Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa) as to the director and the two actors, both of whom wisely avoid diving right into waterworks. Of course, Ruffalo’s character must be adult and firm in his resolve no matter what. It’s hardwired into who he is, but he’s clearly not immune to Jenna’s dilemma just the same. Garner, on the other hand, plays multiple levels as Jenna struggles between childhood anguish and adult regret. In many ways, she is incapable of processing the gravity of the situation, yet on some level she is well aware, too late it seems, that she alone has been her own undoing. I remember being blown away watching this scene unfold the first time I saw the movie–back at the old UA Northstar 8 in Garland–a feeling corroborated by almost everyone I know who has seen it.
Meanwhile, in Young Adult Mavis faces a similar letdown though without all that TLC. Again, the matter comes down to “choices”; however, the scene that most moves me comes a bit later when Mavis gets a pep-talk from an unlikely source, a character who has hovered in the background for much of the story. Collette Wolf plays Sandra Freehauf, the sister of Mavis’s drinking buddy and fellow sad sack, Matt. Once again, two performers maximize their thespic strengths. For one brief moment Wolf’s Sandra remembers who she once was: the awkward nobody who would have given almost anything to travel in Mavis’s circle–if not take her place outright. (Much like Jenna Rink) Every time I watch this scene, I marvel at her process, her choices, as she brings brilliant life to dialogue that seems almost unplayable. Meanwhile, Theron proves she’s just as adept at listening as she is seizing control of the screen. Interesting to note that in the DVD commentaries on each flick, the respective directors give special consideration to these third act scenes as some of their best work, indeed.
I wish both lead actresses had received more accolades for their work. I never got into Garner’s Alias TV show so much though I watched it from time to time, and she acquitted herself admirably in Juno (coincidentally from Reitman) as well the recent Oscar winning Dallas Buyers Club, but those were both supporting roles; however, I think as Jenna, a child in a grown woman’s body–with a grown woman’s past–she delivers not only a performance that works as well-observed, skilled, and intelligent acting (like when she’s trying to hail a cab, speak professionally, or, again, in that devastating third act), but she announces herself as a true movie star, complete with deliciously heart-melting close-ups and a nice riff on Mary Tyler Moore’s familiar opening credits. I’ll be perfectly frank. Garner’s was probably my second favorite leading actress performance in all of 2004–right behind Oscar winner Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Not bad. (Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton is right up there as well.) That noted, I really didn’t expect Garner to, uh, garner an Oscar nod, no, that never seemed probable; however, I full well expected her to figure in the race for either the Golden Globes (in the Comedy category) OR the Saturn awards (for fantasy, science fiction, and horror films); alas, nada on both accounts, which frankly surprises me–especially the Saturn omission. Yes, 13 Going on 30 was only a middling hit, but it was far from a flop. Plus, reviewers frequently praised Garner even when they were less enthusiastic about the movie as a whole. Maybe Garner ‘s performance just didn’t seem as fresh barely a year after Jamie Lee Curtis wowed audiences and critics alike in Disney’s second remake of Freaky Friday as, after all, Curtis was indeed nominated for both the Globe and the Saturn award–and deservedly so. On the other hand, Garner eked out nods for the MTV Movie Awards as well as a Teen Choice award; her film was also a People’s Choice nominee.
On the other hand, Theron fared a little bit better. I can’t say hers was my favorite performance of 2011, but I can say that I definitely preferred her film to that dreadful Margaret Thatcher biopic that carried Meryl Streep to her third–and some would say long ovedue–Academy award. Oh, and I definitely think Theron full-well deserved the slot on Oscar’s final ballot that went to Michelle Williams in the cheap trick known as My Week with Marilyn (Marilyn Monroe, that is). I’d even trade Rooney Mara’s nod for her star making turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When Theron won the 2003/04 Best Actress Oscar for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos, we were all enthralled; the performance was staggeringly good, yet in Young Adult she’s daringly convincing playing a different kind of monster, and she has a number of moments that seem tailor made for Oscar consideration, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing if and when the goods are delivered, as they most definitely are in this case, whether it’s the exchange with Wolf, a silent meltdown in a noisy tavern, or that moment when Mavis snaps because she’s just too tired to care anymore. It’s not a scene that’s easy to forget, I assure you. Plus, besides knowing how to handle the emotional fireworks, Theron definitely knows how to toss-off a one-liner in a way that perfectly fits her character, who, don’t forget, behaves like an overgrown teenager. Again, Theron earned at least as much as a Golden Globe nod–which at least puts her ahead of Garner in that regard–though an Oscar nomination would have been fab. Still, Theron already has an Oscar along with a nomination for 2005’s North Country; plus, Young Adult, with its unapologetically acidic tone, tanked with moviegoers in a way that made serious Academy consideration almost impossible.
Both movies benefit from strong supporting casts as well, beginning with the aforementioned Mark Ruffalo and Collette Wolf. 13 Going on 30 also boasts the inestimable Judy Greer, she of the delicious crackerjack timing, as the co-worker and sometime friend who knows exactly how much to push Jenna’s buttons. Greer can make just about any ole line funnier that it needs to be, but she also handles a delicate character trajectory: neither entirely good nor bad (marvellously handled by the screenwriters), but definitely not someone who can be trusted either. Kudos, as well, to the astute casting agent who landed teen actors Christa B. Allen, Sean Marquette, and Alexandra Kyle to portray younger versions of Garner, Ruffalo, and Geer (or, rather, their characters); Allen is particularly good. The other standouts in the Young Adult cast include Patrick Wilson, as the once-upon-a-hunk who has comfortably settled into small-town domesticity. It’s not a flashy role, but Wilson knows how to make his character’s embrace of the conventional engaging. Plus he understands how to underplay without getting trounced. Also worth noting: Elizabeth Reaser, as Wilson’s wife, an obviously intelligent woman whom Mavis consistently under-estimates. Reaser demonstrates sweetness and strength in surprising ways, a triumph given that she does so with minimal dialogue.
Regarding Young Adult‘s supporting cast, I admit that I didn’t warm to Patton Oswalt’s mopey Matt Freehauf as much as the critics did. Oh, I didn’t hate it, and I can clearly see that Oswalt delivers his zingers with relish, but I also think that there’s something too schematic about the character even though Oswalt has a likable presence. That noted, he scored a few nominations during the 2011/12 awards season, including a Critics Choice nod, so I’m clearly in the minority, and I accept that.
Tonally, these movies could not be more different, but they bear many striking similarities, and both challenge ideas about comedy and tragedy in surprising ways, but I’ll stop here rather than spoil their perfect endings.
Thanks for your consideration….